Citizen Journalism in Modern North American Society

Written and Produced by Adam Pugsley & Lauren Dick

Illuminated Transcript

Introduction: You’re listening to InQUERY, a podcast show run by the Professional Writing students here at York University. We’re exploring the technology of today and creating the new ideas of tomorrow.

Lauren Dick: My name is Lauren…

Adam Pugsley: My name is Adam…

Lauren Dick: And in our podcast today we will be discussing how citizen journalism has modernized the way journalists are gathering their data. If citizens are their primary source, how do we know the information gathered is valid? Are their jobs becoming obsolete now that anyone can become a journalist with wifi and a smartphone?

Adam Pugsley: So, we should start off by asking: what exactly is citizen journalism?

Lauren Dick: Well, according to the Collins English Dictionary, citizen journalism is defined as “the involvement of non-professionals in reporting news, especially in blogs and other websites” (dictionary.com) In other words, citizen journalism occurs whenever non-professionals involve themselves in the reporting of news in any capacity. This includes Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram updates, blog posts, cellphone footage, eye-witness accounts, etc.  

Adam Pugsley: Let’s take for example the 2014 death of New York citizen Eric Garner (For more information, please click here: https://fromscratchmedia.squarespace.com/config#/|/blog-season1/340402ae-8dc7-4cee-bb84-5e1dd49c37d6). The event caused outrage after he was put into a chokehold by an NYPD officer who had accused him of selling loose cigarettes on the street, resulting in his death.

Despite the official police report’s claim that the officers grabbed Eric Garner by the arms, the entire incident was recorded on the cellphone of Mr. Garner’s friend. The video clearly showed the officer with him in a chokehold, a move that is prohibited for NYPD officers.

His final words, “I can’t breathe”, were used in protests across America, as debates ensued about about race and police brutality in the country (theguardian.com).

This is only one of many examples of the impact that citizen journalism is now having. People have the ability to share first hand accounts of incidents like this, and it’s a big deal.

But, what we really have to do is start from the beginning. Citizen journalism is a relatively new phenomenon that wasn’t really common until the moments following the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

Lauren Dick: According to Stuart Allan, author of a scholarly article describing the turning point of “citizen produced coverage” (Allan, 32), in the moments following the 9/11 attack most of the major news sites crashed due to overwhelming flow of traffic. Since no one could reach these news stations, survivors and witnesses began posting their own videos and accounts of what had happened on personal blogs.

It was only later on when news sites were reinstated that personal reporting calmed.

Adam Pugsley: Right, so because the major news sites were unreliable people began to do the reporting themselves.

Lauren Dick: Exactly, and this is a something that has become more and more common with the integration of the internet into our daily lives.

Adam Pugsley: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, think about it, in North America social media plays a huge role in the daily lives of people. Imagine if an event similar in scale to 9/11 happened now, the internet would explode with content. Nowadays everyone has an HD camera right in their pocket, and they’re eager to share the things they experience.

Lauren Dick: Something similar to that has actually been happening the past few years over the deadly encounters Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown faced with police. These events birthed the #BlackLivesMatter movement (For more information, please click here: https://fromscratchmedia.squarespace.com/blog-season1/e007ec25-3ec2-47b9-bd11-61a650acca0e), a campaign created to highlight how society systematically and intentionally targets Black people to their demise (Garza). This movement has gained international traction by their exponential show of support both online and offline.

Adam Pugsley: Yeah, that was definitely a controversial time with all of the witness accounts, citizen journalist’s updates and the media coverage, especially with the Michael Brown shooting.

Lauren Dick: A lot of what we learned was a combination of citizen’s and the news’ rendition of events.

Adam Pugsley: Is it common for news stations to gather their data from citizens?

Lauren Dick: Yeah, in fact a 2010 study by Cision and Don Bates (For more information, please click here: https://fromscratchmedia.squarespace.com/blog-season1/2015/11/22/american-national-survey-by-cision-and-don-bates), founding director of the Strategic Public Relations Graduate Program at George Washington University, showed that 52% of journalists turned to micro-blogging platforms like Twitter, 65% turned to social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and 89% turn to blogs for their story information (Bates). That’s nuts! That’s the same as saying that about every 9 out of 10 journalists use citizen’s accounts of what’s happening!

Adam Pugsley: I think that really shows how citizen journalism has solidified itself in the modern information age. It looks like it’s not just a phase, it’s here to stay.

Lauren Dick: But then that brings into question its authenticity, right? If anyone can post things on the internet, then how do we know what they are saying is actually true?

Adam Pugsley: Well, they treat it like any other source. The very same study conducted by Cision interviewed Mr. Bates, who said, “Social media provides a wealth of new information for journalists, but getting the story right is just as important as ever” (Bates).

Lauren Dick: So in other words, first they identify where it’s coming from, then they fact check. A lot.

Adam Pugsley: Often times citizen journalist’s accounts of events are the only way for mainstream media to gain information about what’s actually happening.

Let’s take for example the shootings in Ottawa last year, most of the “press release” information was due to MP’s and police tweets about lockdown statuses in the nation capital’s downtown core (CTVNews). The important information was able to be sent out within 140 characters or less safely behind the Parliament's barred doors.

Lauren Dick: In a way, the press really relied on citizen journalists in order to cover that story, didn’t they?

Adam Pugsley: It seems like it, yeah. I mean, what better way to get live updates on an unfolding event than to hear from those who are directly involved in what’s going on? Regardless of how quickly the mainstream media outlets can get someone out onto the scene, there’s certain aspects of a story that just can’t be known without the perspective of someone on the inside.

Lauren Dick: But that still begs the question, how do we know what’s authentic media coverage? How can I know, as a citizen, a media consumer, that these accounts of what happened were true?

Adam Pugsley: Well, we don’t. We’d have to have faith that they would not lie or alter the truth, especially in difficult times, like the ones in Ottawa. It also depends on what medium they use to broadcast what happened. Videos are harder to dispute than words, though with photoshop pictures have become much easier to falsify.

And if you think about it, journalists have been already using citizen journalism to extend their reports. They’ve used it mainly in three ways: by encouraging comments on any events that happened, which is usually done by social media, seeing as nearly all news stations have Facebook or Twitter accounts, by crowdsourcing, journalists asking the general public for more information or to fact check what they’ve already found, and finally, by creating dedicated citizen journalism websites, like CNN’s iReport (Jurrat).

Lauren Dick: Yeah, I agree. It can be helpful to use different platforms, too! For example I heard about an election in Mexico where political parties were buying electoral votes, but they were caught on film (Andrade). The film was distributed through WhatsApp, an app that shares location, videos and photos. Guess it’s also making it easier to place accountability if anyone can catch you.

Adam Pugsley: So, we know that citizens worldwide are broadcasting information, and journalists are picking up on what they’re saying to use it in their stories.

Lauren Dick: That’s right, yeah.

Adam Pugsley: So then what’s the point of having journalists vocalizing what people all over the world are saying if it’s already being said? Wouldn’t that make the journalist’s job obsolete?

Lauren Dick: In theory, yes. In real life, not so much. Theoretically their jobs are already done, right? But people are more apt to believe and listen to what news casters and journalists have to say (Miller). The very fact that it’s being brought to light on national television, or radio for that matter, gives whatever people are posting credibility. Without the quote unquote professionals broadcasting what they know are happening, then it’s easy for it to be lost in all of the other posts on the available platforms.

Adam Pugsley: So you’re saying that we don’t really need them anymore, but because of our past habit of only believing what’s said by quote unquote professionals, we need them?

Lauren Dick: Pretty much. That’s not to say that journalists can do it alone, though. It’s kinda like the chicken and the egg scenario. You will never know which one came first, but you need both to make a story successful.

Adam Pugsley: Alright, so basically by working together they can cover more stories, get more facts straight, etc.? That makes sense I guess, because if there’s a war zone or another situation going on where professional journalists aren’t allowed entrance, then they can utilize citizen journalists’ accounts of what’s happening to tell the world the crucial details.

Lauren Dick: That’s actually an example of that exact thing happening during the war in Iraq in 2003. When the United States military first invaded, an Iraqi student using the pseudonym Salam Pax created a blog called “Where is Raed” which showed the Iraqi people's everyday lives, including bombings and citizens disappearing (Jurrat). He continued to do this for the first few years of the war (Jurrat).

These accounts often contradicted the official statements produced by the U.S. and United Kingdom governments (Jurrat). Soon mainstream UK media such as BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] and Guardian regularly displayed his reports (Jurrat).

Adam Pugsley: I definitely think this is a good thing. When everyday people can have a platform like that to voice their opinion, and are able to tell their side of the story, it holds other people accountable for the kinds of stories they’re running.

Lauren Dick: Yes, but then it also brings into question the credibility of the traditional media sources, seeing as what Mr. Pax was saying went against what U.S. governments were announcing.

Adam Pugsley: That sounds similar to the story of Walter Scott, a fifty-year-old man who tried to run from the police when he was shot in the back in South Carolina. The police accounts said that Scott had acquired the officer’s stun gun, and in fear of his safety, the policeman shot Scott (Apuzzo and Williams). However, the video showed Scott running away, and the officer firing the deadly shot into his back. And without the video the public would have never known the truth of what actually happened. (Apuzzo and Williams).

Lauren Dick: It’s becoming more and more obvious that we cannot blindly trust all media accounts; they must be taken with a grain of salt.

The wonderful aspect of citizen journalism is that not only does it get validated when journalists use it in a story, but it can also add credibility to the journalist’s account of what happened.

Adam Pugsley: It’s true. We’re beginning to become more and more self-sufficient and tying the two different forms of journalism together may be the best of both worlds. One form is not necessarily more or less credible than the other. As with all information, you need to analyze it from a critical perspective rather than blindly believing what’s being said. You still need to think for yourself, you know?

Lauren Dick: We created a quick survey (For more information, please click here: https://fromscratchmedia.squarespace.com/config#/|/blog-season1/7b240762-bf48-4461-b227-1db1a0737388) in order to get some opinions about the validity of citizen journalism versus mainstream media. Three out of five people said that they get their news from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and the remaining two get their information from blogs or other websites.

Adam Pugsley: Looks like traditional media’s popularity is on a decline. Though that may be because of technology. They may just be turning to the news station’s accounts to get their information rather than tuning in on TV or on the radio.

Lauren Dick: What’s really interesting is the last question on our survey, which was, “Would you consider a tweet from a citizen journalist more or less credible than a tweet from a mainstream media outlet?” Out of the five people that responded two said more credible.

Adam Pugsley: I think one said less credible.

Lauren Dick: And the final two said that they were equally credible.

Adam Pugsley: So, overall we’re on the fence then. We need professionals to give citizen journalists a more credible feel, and yet because of past events people are becoming less trusting of the traditional news sources, making them use citizen’s accounts to give themselves more authenticity.

Lauren Dick: Sounds about right. Plus, we know that any citizen’s accounts of events must be fact checked before they can be used, so anything we see used in stories can usually be assumed valid.

Adam Pugsley: I think it’s important that we realize that if we see something online, we just have to have faith that people would only report the truth about such important events. In the information age that we all live in today, being able to make your own decisions about the credibility of important information is crucial.

Lauren Dick: Taking a step back, the bigger question is for our listeners: who would you believe first, random John Doe on the street, or John Doe a professional journalist?

Adam Pugsley: So that’s it for our podcast today, we hope you join us next time for our look into citizen journalism on the global scale rather than just North America. So for a preview of that episode, check out the blog post I wrote on the InQUERY blog regarding the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine (To see the blog post, click here: https://fromscratchmedia.squarespace.com/config#/|/blog-season1/8b1cc377-fcbc-41ae-aa64-0dfcb607fcd8). And we’ll see you next time!

 

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